Thursday, July 21, 2011

Books: George Platt Lynes and the Male Nude

George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes
Edited by Steven Haas
Foreword by George Platt Lynes II
Afterword by Allen Ellenzweig
256 pages/10” x 12”
Rizzoli, $12

There have been a number of books about the photographer George Platt Lynes, whose work in the 1930s and 1940s helped set the stage for much of what we see in the visual culture today. This newest volume, which was release in May, is one of the best. It is the most comprehensive collection of Platt Lynes’s male nudes in print, according to the book’s publisher, Rizzoli. This was work that the photographer pursued privately and obsessively during the time he became one of America’s best-known celebrity portraitists. Until now, much of the work had never been seen; after Platt Lynes’s death in 19TK, the images were stashed away in the archives of the Kinsey Institute, hidden from view, just as they were during the photographer’s life.

Platt Lynes’s work was never forgotten, however. It influenced a generation of photographers who created the visual culture we live in today, in which the eroticized male is seen and accepted as both art and commerce.

“People like Robert  Mappelthorpe, Bruce Weber, and Herb Ritts all investigated the history of male imagery,” said art and photography critic Allen Ellensweig, author of the The Homoerotic Photograph, when I spoke with him recently. “In their work, the male body is rediscovered for its plastic, sculptural quality. Platt Lynes pointed the way in that direction.”

In an afterword to the new book, Ellenzweig adeptly puts Platt Lynes’s male nudes into a cultural and historic framework—the work is, he says, “sui generis, a project so unalterably his own, with so little promise of any serious recompense, that it is significant he pursued it with such passion. But that, of course, was the point. He was a passionate lover of beautiful young men—a category more various that those three words imply.”

Charles "Tex" Smutney and Charles "Buddy" Stanley, 1941
Carlos McClendon, 1947
 It was in the late 1940s that Alfred Kinsey became acquainted with Platt Lynes and his male nude. The pioneering sex researcher became attached to Platt Lynes’s social circle, which included the novelist Glenway Westcott and Monroe Wheeler, who for many years headed the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibitions and publications department. Wheeler was Platt Lynes’s lover, and Wescott had been Wheeler’s lover before that. 

“The three had been a ménage a trois fromm the late 1920s through the early 1940s,” said Ellensweig. “Kinsey entered their circle through Westcott. He was fascinated with the work he discovered. Platt Lynes had been doing for years on the male nude. The work was consonant with his growing understanding of homosexuality in the United States—its prevalence and its diversity—and he was keenly interested in erotic art for his own scientific purposes.” A decade later, as Platt Lynes approached death, he decided the work should reside at the Kinsey Institute. “He clearly was concerned that this work, which he considered his greatest achievement as a photographer, should not be dispersed or destroyed,” Ellensweig said. “We have to remember the time period we’re talking about—America during the post-war Red Scare..

He added, “In fact, during the McCarthy era, it’s quite possible that more people lost their jobs because they were accused of being queers or perverts than those accused of being commies. The Red Scare was also a Pink Scare.”

A Complicated Life

The book’s centerpiece biographical sketch, written by Steven Haas, director of the George Platt Lynes Foundation, does a sturdy and often detailed tracing of the photographer’s life. It begins with Platt Lynes attending the Berkshire School in Massachusetts, where the English master once commented that his “work, in composition, is showing less of the utterly weird element which so dominated last term.” It was no surprise, then, when he was shipped off to Paris on the RMS Mauretania as a preparation for college.

Gordon Hanson, 1954
In Paris, his life changed when he became associated with Gertrude Stein and her ex-pat circle, which included Westcott. He eventually gave up the idea of a literary career and took up photography. By 1932 the art dealer Julian Levy was exhibiting his work in New York. Platt Lynes opened a studio and began shooting for the big fashion magazines, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He later became the unofficial photographer of George Balanchine’s new American Ballet company.

In the 1940s, disillusioned with New York, he moved to Hollywood, where he photographed movie stars and others. Haas tells the story of Platt Lynes’s heterosexual affair with Laurie Douglas, known as Dougie, who eventually married producer William Harbach. At the time of their affair, Platt Lynes was also involved with Jonathan Tichenor. Once, when Jonathan also began flirting with Dougie, Platt Lynes became angry. Haas quotes Dougie as saying, “He didn’t want his boyfriend making passes at his girlfriend.” It was a complicated life.

The Homoerotic Aesthetic

Through his career, Platt Lynes pursued the personal work that compelled him—the male nudes. “The depth and commitment he had in photographing the male nude, from the start of his career to the end, was astonishing,” said Ellensweig. “There was absolutely no commercial impulse involved—he couldn’t exhibit it, he couldn’t publish it.”

Charles Boyton,1930
As Ellensweig noted, homoeroticism in photography had not always been underground—but it had been disguised, as in the images of early photographers like Wilhelm von Gloeden and F. Holland Day. “Working in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, they were under the prevailing ideas and understanding of homosexuality, and the model for homosexuality at that tme was ancient Greece,” said Ellensweig. “It was a model and a rational, in which you could see yourself as a homosexual person as part of a glorious tradition that reached back to antique times. It also gave you a kind of imprimatur and permission within the larger society. In visual terms, it meant you would pose your subject next to a classical column, or some of the better-known statues of the golden Athnian era. They certified the male nude as honorable, not obscene, without necessarily evoking homosexuality itself, which would have been impermissible.”

By the time Platt Lynes was working, there was, says Ellensweig, “a totally different understanding of same-sex love.” More people were aware of homosexuality—a term that barely existed in the time of Von Gloeden and Day—yet (or perhaps as a consequence) there was more fear of it. In was in this context that Platt Lynes created his work—filled with theatrical studio lighting that sculpted bodies, which were often juxtaposed with odd objects in surrealistic compositions.

“He investigated the male body as an object worthy of investigation—in the way that the female body had been investigated since the beginning of photography,” said Ellensweig. While Platt Lynes didn’t need an excuse to portray the male body, his work nonetheless feels closeted—trapped indoors, secluded, utterly private, set in what Ellensweig calls “a twilight eroticism.” 

It would be the photographer that Platt Lynes inspired, particularly Weber and Ritts, who would bring that eroticism outdoors and into the light of day.

1 comment:

  1. I have this book, fantastic document of history in the making!